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Resources for Scottish genealogy

Posted by Sean Daly on Jan 21, 2023
scottish flag with a bagpiper and castle

Scotland has had a rich and varied history and records are available going back centuries. Learn about resources to research your Scottish ancestors!

Scotland has been part of the United Kingdom since the Acts of Union in 1707, but has retained its own legal and educational systems, its own church and culture.

William Wallace statue in Aberdeen.

Historical context

Nearly two millennia ago, the country’s tribes fought the Romans (and lost, but the Romans realized they could go no further); Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall were built to keep the Caledonians out of Roman Britannia. The Romans later withdrew from the British Isles; Christianity arrived in Scotland around the 6th century; two centuries later, the Vikings arrived in the Northern Isles, then started settlements on the mainland while continuing raids. In the mid-9th century, the Scottish tribes united and defeated the Vikings, who nonetheless remained in Shetland and Orkney. By the 10th century, those Norsemen were Christians, and by the 15th century, the Northern Isles were permanently joined to Scotland. From medieval times, England treated its northern neighbor as an unruly territory to be dominated; there were two wars of Scottish independence in the late 13th and early 14th centuries which confirmed Scotland’s status as a separate kingdom. The Protestant Reformation reached Scotland in the 15th century; by the mid-16th century, Scotland’s Presbyterian Kirk (Church) was founded. In 1603, James VI of Scotland assumed the English and Irish thrones, but this union of the three kingdoms was not to last. Religious strife between Protestants and Catholics continued even after the Acts of Union, and Scottish Lowlanders and Highlanders were at odds: the former more welcoming of the English, the latter far less. The defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite rising in the mid-18th century confirmed Scotland’s role as a nation within the United Kingdom.

Although these battles over the centuries did result in the torching and destruction of some towns, archives throughout Scotland have survived intact, which means today’s genealogists have many record sets to research their ancestry!

As always, keep in mind that the spelling of family names was not standardized until the 20th century. In particular, for any name starting with “Mc”, search also for the variant “Mac” and vice versa.

Note also that in Scotland, two languages other than English are spoken: Scots (a sister language of English), sometimes called Broad Scots, spoken mostly in the Lowlands and Northern Isles (and in the north of Northern Ireland facing Scotland), and Scottish Gaelic (related to Irish), the indigenous Celtic language previously spoken throughout the Highlands but now mainly spoken in the Outer Hebrides and and the western Highlands. This FamilySearch document (PDF) may be useful for understanding where these languages were and are spoken.

Robert Burns (1759-1796), Scotland’s greatest poet, is celebrated every January 25th on his birthday with a fine meal of haggis, Scotch whisky, and readings of Burns’ works. Have you attended a Burns Night supper?

Scottish resources at Geneanet

There are Scottish collections available at Geneanet, but they are not directly accessible through a Scotland page or portal. Instead, our collections are associated with counties or regions of the United Kingdom. Moreover, for technical reasons, the UK regions we use are the 1975-1996 regions, not the council areas in use since. As an extreme example, at Geneanet, records from the council areas Glasgow City, North and South Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire and East Renfrewshire, North, South, and East Ayrshire, East and West Dunbartonshire, and Inverclyde are all searchable under Strathclyde. That said, some regions didn’t change in 1996: Shetland, Orkney, Borders. Most of our holdings about Scotland are digitized books in our Genealogy Library for Premium members, and volunteer contributions (which are always free) such as our Save our Graves project. If your ancestor fell in World War I in France or Belgium and is buried in Europe, it’s possible a Geneanet volunteer has photographed his grave or memorial.

If you know your ancestor’s place of origin (from the 1975-1996 regions), try searching our collections. You may come across a digitized book about a place in our Genealogy Library, or grave photos from a local cemetery uploaded by a Geneanet volunteer.
Geneanet volunteer cl1949 took this photo of the grave of Pvt. Alexander Roy of the Gordon Highlanders who died in France on the 3rd of August, 1916, age 22. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission database is indexed at Geneanet; Pvt. Roy’s page there has additional information: “Husband of Mary Roy, of Clochan, Port Gordon, Banffshire.”

Scottish genealogy resources

We have compiled a list of resources for Scottish genealogy which we believe will be useful for you. If you know of a good resource we missed, please let us know in the comments!

Did we miss any resources? Please let us know in the comments! And don’t hesitate to ask for help in our forums where we have a United Kingdom section. Geneanet members are helpful and questions are monitored by support!


Is there a resource that tracks Scots who emigrated from Scotland to Ireland prior to the potato famine in Ireland?

Answer from Geneanet: We are not aware of such a resource. In the 19th century, these would have been internal movements within the United Kingdom. And the loss of Ireland’s censuses in the 1922 Four Courts fire means comparing the 1841 returns on both sides is not straightforward. There may well be earlier records (the Plantation of Ulster); we suggest searching books. Hathitrust has volumes of interest, for example: The Scot in Ulster, 1888; The Soul of Ulster, 1917.

Also, be sure to check our article Resources for Irish Genealogy.

An excellent source for Borders Scots is The Hawick Word Book.- covers people, places and dialect of the Scottish Borders town of Hawick and its surrounds. It is run by local people headed by a professor in Vancouver who comes from the town,

Answer from Geneanet: Thank you very much! We have added this resource to our list.

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